Science-Fiction Filme) Mr. Sturm. Your work in movies and on TV, you often see, but often do not think about how it works. You are a specialist in making snow. Your work has been seen in films such as FARGO (1996), OUT OF SIGHT (1998) or in the TRANSFORMERS franchise. How do you come to take the path of "making snow"?
Dieter Sturm) Prior to working as a Special Effects Coordinator, my career was involved in Corporate Public Relations and Marketing. I started out of school working for a rock radio station in Milwaukee where I moved my way up the ladder from a janitor to Promotions Director. From there, I moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to take the position as Corporate Public Relations Director for Playboy Clubs International based at their resort property. When they sold, I moved to TSR, Inc and worked for Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons.
I was always a kid inventor and designed and built things all throughout those years in the evenings and weekends. I was asked by a fellow that I worked with on a promotion if I could blow up a television set for a tv commercial and I said YES. After that first experience, I know that I wanted to work in the film and video world. I knocked on many doors and then was offered a shot at blowing up radios and stereos for another tv commercial. It was a huge success and won many awards. I was still working PR and public relations when I get a call to finish up several special effects scenes for a movie called LUCAS (1986) because they fired their SFX Coordinator. I jumped at the opportunity and walked on the movie set knowing nothing about this new world and knowing nobody. I just focused on what was needed to get done.
Several weeks later, I received a call asking if I’d like to work on a 2 month movie in the Special Effects Department. This was a pivotal point where I then had to make the decision to quit my full time day job and pursue special effects or take a pass. I made the choice to try and make special effects my full time new career and gave my notice of resignation.
The movie was titled PLANES TRAINS and AUTOMOBILES (1987) being directed by John Hughes. My boss was Special Effects Coordinator Stan Parks who gave me my first real break into the industry. Although there were many mechanical gags that had to be built and performed, snow and winter creation was an area that I landed and was heavily involved in. I learned a lot of tricks from them.
Later after the movie and I was now out on my own having to look for the next job, a fellow named Curt Smith asked if I would help him with creating some snow scenes for several tv commercials. Curt was known as “the snow guy” in Chicago. I jumped at the opportunity, but also knew it was hard work and long hours. Curt took me on many more snow jobs and then one day said, “I’m done, I’m retiring… good luck!” That was a surprise from nowhere to me! As time went on, when snow scenes were being asked for and Curt was no longer around, word was out that I had those skills and that is where snow became such a focus and specialty in my special effects business.
SFF.) Do you have any personal idols or favorite movies in your business?
D.S.) To date, I have worked on just over 100 motion picture projects in my 35 years. I’d have to say the original movie FARGO is one of my favorites, but working with sfx legend Tommy Fisher on TRUE LIES was an incredible opportunity. Several of my favorite actors that were very nice and personable were John Travolta and Glenn Close to me.
SFF.) Can you give us an overview of what materials are best to take or develop to show snow in film?
D.S.) There are two categories in my book for snow, ground cover and then falling snow. Throughout the years, I’ve worked with every kind of snow material and technique out there. For ground cover, I generally use 3 items now, 1) real snow from our SNOWMAKER TRUCK for creating the best manmade snow you can get for shots that involve the actors one-on-one, 2) a snow blanket material that we developed called WaterSculpt that mattes down when you spray it with water to look real, and 3) a product called Snowfaom that creates large areas of “snowy white” in mid and backgrounds and for tress, bushes, etc. with our custom Snofoam Trailer System I designed and built.
For falling snow, we primarily use flaker machines that disperse thousands of bubble clusters that visually look like falling snowflakes to camera and the eye and continue to use biodegradable flake.
SFF.) You won a technical achievement award in 1996 for the development of Bio-Snow 2 Flake. Could you please explain what this is all about?
D.S.) In the early years for falling snow, we use to use plastic, Styrofoam, and even potato flakes for falling snow. Coming back to a location that we filmed at several years earlier, I found all of this plastic flake still in the bushes and grass where we filmed. I immediately thought this was wrong and that there had to be a better, more eco friendly way to deal with the problem I encountered. I set out to design and develop an artificial snowflake that would dissolve when wet and was environmentally safe for the ground. It took me several years to come up with a material I called BioSnow which used corn and cheese whey, slurried it and then organically color corrected it to white, created a film which was then twisted and chopped to give me the flake particle. It was a first for the industry but was not completely successful when released. It worked, but too well. When it would mist or rain, the flakes would immediately start to break down and left a lot of gummy and sticky messes. It was then back to the drawing board to extend the breakdown time duration and keep the integrity of the flake. Another year went by and I introduced BioSnow 2 which worked well. I was recognized by the Academy for this effort and contribution to the industry.
SFF) A follower on my page asked me this, "With all the great special-effects in the world, why does snow still look so unrealistic?" What do you think about this statement?
D.S.) Its funny but true sometimes. I’ve seen special effects people from Hollywood that have never even seen real snow in their lives attempt to create a snow scene and fail to create the “right” look, only because they never have lived around snow. I’m from Wisconsin and see Mother Nature’s snow 3-4 months a year and observe what it looks like and then try to recreate it. I also believe the special effects equipment and also the materials play a huge role in creating the right look. For instance, some foam snow looks like a washing machine over flowed with soap and bubbles, but is supposed to look like snow- it doesn’t! A creamy thick foam that resembles shaving cream is what you want and that falls back on the materials and equipment used.
SFF.) Wouldn't it be simpler, as is common nowadays, to have snow created by CG as well?
D.S.) At first we thought that CGI would take away our jobs as physical effects creators. Anything we can produce “live” in front of the camera is always preferred, but CGI can add snow elements that might be more cost effective and even safer. As an example, adding snow to a 30 ft church steeple would take man lifts and an amount of time to dress out and even remove. In this case, CGI could quickly add it in post and it works with the physical snow we created. I’d say, over the course of years, both physical and CGI effects have come together and work together well.
SFF.) Many films where you see snow are shot in the summer, or in seasons that don't conform to real snow. What's the biggest difficulty with scenes shot on days like that?
D.S.) I’d say two items, summer heat and green trees with vast amounts of leaves. We have learned how to deal with the heat by creating the snow extremely fast so we can dress out a set right before camera needs to see it and it looks fresh, not melted. Another issue is having to avoid the Spring and Summer look with trees that are full and green. In winter, trees have no leaves and don’t have much color.
Another issue I always advise Production of is falling leaves in the Fall. I tell them not to pick locations where there are huge trees with leaves. Late in Fall, when the leaves fall, they can quickly trash up a snow set even in minutes with a huge gust of wind. Sometimes they don’t listen and guess what?
SFF.) You work for both: cinema and television-series. Could you please give us an overview of the extent to which the working methods in these media are different?
D.S.) All the working elements are the same. The only differences are that TV series are very fast paced and generally have much lower budgets to work with.
SFF) What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
D.S.) It was a movie titled THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998) with Robert Redford. We were asked to manage the snow during the movie which was shot up in the mountains of New York. We arrived with a small crew of 4, only to find there was no snow at all on the ground. I was asked by Disney to come up with a plan to snow the mountains. It was a huge challenge and undertaking. My crew grew to 30 and we were working round the clock in shifts. The hardest was getting the 300 lb blocks of ice up the mountain when no semi trucks could fit on the roadway. In the course of 3 weeks, we went through, chipped and shaved, 54 semi-trailers of block ice into real snow and went through 30,000 gallons of mixed snofoam to white out sides of mountains. No one ever said this job was all glamour… 😊
SFF.) Dear Mr. Sturm. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
D.S.) Thanks for your interest.